[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
This is not your father’s Hamlet. The present melancholy Dane is son of the deceased chairman of Denmark Corporation. His castle is a sleek but alienating New York highrise dotted with omnipresent surveillance cameras, his kingdom city streets lined with paparazzi and tabloid reporters.
Like Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant Romeo + Juliet, set in a modern Miami of mob families and gangbangers, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet preserves the language (admittedly pared and pruned) in a modern setting, a vision in glass and steel. The cold blue and gray palette at times sucks the energy from the film along with the color — even at under two hours it sometimes slogs along in low gear — but Almereyda refreshes a text that has threatened to become a cultural cliché.
Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), a college film student home for his father’s funeral, is emotionally blindsided by his mother’s sudden remarriage. His uncle/stepfather Claudius (a smooth, smarmy Kyle MacLachlan) is a manipulative corporate pirate and his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) is too distracted to hear Hamlet’s anger and confusion.
It’s a warped mirror of the family of loyal Polonius (a fussy but tenderly sincere Bill Murray in a lovely performance) and his warm, concerned relationship with his children Laertes (Liev Schreiber) and Ophelia (Julia Stiles). Almereyda’s tragedy is not the vile murder of Hamlet’s father (whose restless ghost is played by a stately Sam Shepard) but the cycle of violence it perpetuates. As a smoldering, vengeful Hamlet kills the rot of his own family tree, he takes the entire orchard with him.
Ethan Hawke broods well but emotes only passably as Hamlet, wrapping himself in a sullen, alienated shell. Still, it’s refreshing to see a Hamlet who really acts like a grieving, messed-up young adult tortured by indecision and insecurity. An outsider in his own dysfunctional family, he hides behind an ever-present video camera, shielding his bottled-up grief while watching the drama of his family play out from a distance. “To be or not to be” is contemplated in the aisles of a Blockbuster, but his suicidal musings appear in direct address to his camera, a diary-like confession that carries all the more power for its intimacy and isolation.
Some of Almereyda’s modern transpositions are more precious than prescient — the ghost fades into a Pepsi machine, USA Today headlines comment on the struggle over Denmark Corporation, budding director Hamlet creates a rather obtuse experimental film to test his Uncle’s reactions — but his overall take is resonant and his dramatic choices are often startlingly good. Ophelia’s tortured demise has never been more poignant, and Gertrud’s climactic death is transformed into a piercing maternal sacrifice.
Almereyda has pared away the text, but he saves the language and the drama from the musty, reverent faithfulness of Franco Zeffirelli’s stiff 1990 version with Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour 1996 adaptation. Fresh, vibrant, and vital, this interpretation reminds us why Shakespeare is timeless. The scenery changes and the setting moves, but his stories and concerns are eternal.